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Glitches delay assessments at Wichita schools until after spring break

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at 9:25 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, April 21, 2014, at 5:39 a.m.

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State testing season got off to a frustrating start at some Wichita schools this week as computer glitches, error messages and service disruptions at the state level prompted officials to postpone most assessments until after spring break.

“Students were able to get into an item or two before they started getting kicked out of the system,” said Lisa Lutz, executive director of innovation and evaluation for Wichita schools.

Districts statewide experienced similar problems, state officials said. By midmorning Monday, the official launch of this year’s math and reading tests, “people across the state had just discontinued trying to test that day,” Lutz said.

This year’s state assessments, designed by the University of Kansas’ Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, are a new type of test that reflects Common Core state standards. The tests feature more complex questions and “technology-enhanced” items that require students to enter numerical answers or drag and drop items into correct categories.

State officials have emphasized that this year’s test is a trial run – the basic “skeleton” of a fully Common Core-aligned test that will go into effect to meet a federal requirement in 2015.

Problems in Wichita and other districts this week aren’t related to the test questions themselves, said Scott Smith, director of test services for the Kansas Department of Education. Rather, schools have been unable to print test tickets or are experiencing delays or disruptions related to system overload, he said.

“It isn’t the case that this is an unmanageable process. It’s just that it’s very, very new,” Smith said Wednesday.

“We warned (schools) that there will absolutely be problems. … But KU has been very responsive to the issues, and they are on it immediately, isolating it and fixing it,” he said.

Lutz, Wichita’s testing coordinator, said third-graders at McLean Elementary tried the state reading test Monday and fourth-graders at Gammon Elementary tried it Tuesday. No students were able to complete the test.

The district held off testing Wednesday, hoping that patches installed by the testing center will take effect, Lutz said. Teachers plan to try again with seventh-graders at Robinson Middle School on Thursday.

“We’re going to run these short little field tests,” she said. “Because if it’s not going to handle that, we really don’t want our schools spending their time trying to get on” the system.

Monday was the first day of a months-long testing window during which state reading and math tests are administered to every student in third through eighth grades and once in high school. The window was shortened by two weeks this year – it normally starts in February – to give the testing center more time to ready the system, Smith said.

“This test delivery engine in some ways is like any engine,” he said. “We’re going to turn the key and see if it runs. What we don’t want is to have it amped up to 3,000 rpms when we turn the key.

“That’s a little like what happened (this week) with the number of districts wanting to get their tickets and wanting to get the test,” he said.

Lutz said some Wichita schools, particularly large schools with a limited number of computers, “literally need the entire (testing) window to be able to schedule all of those assessments.”

“If this really isn’t working the way that it needs to work the week after spring break, it will be difficult for our schools to complete the assessments within the provided window,” she said.

Smith said the difference between previous years’ multiple-choice tests and this year’s system “are as great as the difference between paper-and-pencil and the computer.”

The rollout of computerized testing statewide took about six years, he said, “so there’s no question that we are really compressing” the transition this year.

Lutz said she thinks the new tests will be better once designers work out the bugs and that Wichita students have been resilient in trying to complete them this week.

State education leaders have said this year’s tests are a pilot run and won’t be used to determine school accreditation. But Lutz said teachers and students still take them seriously, and the early glitches are frustrating.

“Because of the history of the state assessment, it has been the one thing that we’ve been held accountable to publicly,” she said. “So you don’t lose that stress overnight.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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